Jack Marshall on Samuel French “cease and desist” controversy

A ridiculous and offensive example of misuse of legal process and interference with free speech was just flagged by self-exiled Ethics Alarms star, Barry “Ampersand” Deutsch on his blog.

Reprinted with permission from Jack Marshall’s blog EthicsAlarms.com

In her one woman play Thatswhatshesaid, playwright Courtney Meaker cherry-picked lines from the female characters in the eleven most-produced plays of the past theater season, according to one list, anyway. She mashed them up for effect, the effect being to show how “society forces women to conform to certain harmful and paradoxical gender stereotypes, and America’s most popular plays reflect those stereotypes. Playwrights perpetuate the patriarchy by creating roles for women that reduce them to one version or another of male fantasy or fear, and playhouses make sure those plays have a home.”

Okaaay, I think I’ll be passing on that one! Nevertheless, re-arranging bits and pieces of other copyrighted works to create a different work and message from any of the components is such a well-traveled and obvious tool of the modern arts that to say this play’s content is fair use, legal and ethical should be completely unnecessary. Collages that do this have been accepted as routine; musical works and videos too. Here’s a favorite of mine…

But law, ethics and art didn’t stop Samuel French, the theatrical publishing company which licenses some of the plays quoted in Thatswhatshesaid. The company  sent a last minute cease-and-desist notice right before a performance, demanding the play not be presented, and also left a threatening message on the voicemail of the show’s sole performer, Erin Pike, promising to “go after” her, “the presenter and the theater and all the folks connected to it.” Despite being warned by the theater not to defy the mighty French, Pike made sure her showwent on anyway, like any good and courageous artist should.

What’s going on here?

I can’t imagine. French is dead wrong on the law—Barry cites a relevant case in the graphic arts field, and there are many others—and this appears to be an unethical use of threats to stifle legal and legitimate expression. My position is that it is unethical for lawyers to send cease-and desist letters when they know their threat is a bluff at best and a lie at worst. Barry, social justice warrior that he is, writes,

“It’s interesting that a feminist critique of a male-dominated art form, is being treated this way. It’s an illustration of how the power of wealth and the power of male dominance often work together – in this case, they’re virtually indistinguishable.”

No, it’s interesting that a smart guy like Barry lets his confirmation bias and progressive mania eat his brains. Samuel French, which I have dealt with for decades, cares about money, not politics, and knows its market, which is mostly amateur theater, is overwhelmingly dominated by liberals, women, and gays.  French’s attempted shakedown is terrible business, but it is obviously designed to see if it can squeeze money out of this and other works that use pieces of its plays. If Thatswhatshesaid is a hit, French will be happy to market and license it, too.

Barry is correct, however, that

“…it’s unlikely that anyone involved with Thatswhatshesays has the financial means to allow themselves to be sued if there’s any alternative. Which is the fundamental corruptness of the copyright system – for pragmatic purposes, very often the right of fair use is worthless, because very often the cases involve people with truckloads of money threatening to sue people with none.”

This is why I immediately shot a link to Barry’s post to Ken White and Marc Randazza at Popehat, as they often ride to the rescue of such victims of censorious extortion.

My contribution to the cause can only be circulating the tale of French’s despicable and unethical attempt to crush a legitimate theater work through its false threats to the theater community. Theater companies  have  choices regarding what works to schedule and produce, and there are other licensing houses. I will strongly suggest that they produce the shows that are licensed by companies that support the theater and its artists, rather than bullying, extorting and threatening them without good cause.

Jack Marshall About Jack Marshall

Jack Marshall is known to theatre goers as an award-winning stage director, and, from 1994 to 2015, as the founding artistic director for The American Century Theater. He is the prolific contributor to Ethics Alarms, and is president and founder of ProEthics, LTD. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and partner, Grace Marshall, their son Grant, and their Jack Russell Terrier, Rugby. Like many who are interested in the nature of good, evil, justice, and chaos, he is a lifetime fan of the Boston Red Sox.

Comments

  1. I don’t think Barry was saying the cease and desist was because of the feminist nature of the play (although it being outre might be something to do with how it grabbed attention–I don’t know how French works), but that in this case, the effect she describes in other locations is being perpetuated by a different cause in this one — to the same result. Granted, you need to accept that patriarchy and wealth inequality are related, so that the fact one can substitute for the other is meaningful, but it’s not quite the argument you attributed to him. I think.

    Anyway, hope the blatant rights grab jerkishness gets resolved.

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